The Bridges – innovations and what we’ve learnt from the pandemic
Friday 04 September 2020

When we first went into lockdown, it was an incredibly stressful time for all of us at The Bridges. Clients were devastated because they could no longer attend mutual aid meetings out in the community, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), which are such a crucial part of their treatment. We were also in the process of recruiting for new staff, but the logistics of interviewing people in person were difficult and so we struggled to fill some of our vacant positions.

Some of the clients were saying it felt like they were back in prison, while we were beginning to question whether we would have to send people home. It was a really tough time. 

We had to think and adapt quickly to prevent any major disruption and ensure our clients could keep getting the support they needed. One of the first steps we took was to buy webcams so the guys could do their mutual aid meetings remotely. We rigged up our recovery room with webcams and speakers, and created a timetable of online meetings that mirrored their usual routine as closely as possible. Meanwhile, we opened up payphones to be available to clients 24/7 so that they could keep in touch with their loved ones. Thankfully, we were also able to borrow some staff members from our neighbouring service, ReNew, which meant we weren’t spread quite so thinly and could allow our residents a little more freedom within the house.

Working out and keeping fit is massively important to our clients, and really helps with their recovery and mental health, so we incorporated a range of wellbeing and fitness sessions into the timetable. We bought skipping ropes, basketball hoops and speakers, and even had one of our clients, a qualified personal trainer, running socially distanced fitness sessions in the garden!

Our friends and neighbours have been unbelievably generous. They donated things like board games, jigsaws and cards - anything and everything to keep our residents occupied and entertained. We really took it back to basics: we did treasure hunts in the house, played snakes and ladders, painted, held music groups - we had a lot of fun. We even had some TVs donated to us, which were particularly appreciated by our more vulnerable clients who had to shield from others in the household. We also equipped them with basic smartphones so they could dial into group therapy sessions, even from the confines of their rooms. 

In April, we took on the 2.6 challenge (a fundraising and exercise challenge set up by the London Marathon, to try and help charities who were being impacted by the loss of income from fun runners sponsorship after the race was postponed), with an exercise bike that had been loaned to us. It was a brilliant day, with both staff and clients doing their bit to cycle over 26 miles. We smashed our initial fundraising target of £100, raising £420 in total! With the money, we were able to purchase eight bikes from a local charity called Revolution, who specialise in revamping bikes for marginalised groups. Now the guys can get out and about without having to take a bus, while getting some exercise in - they absolutely love it!

In normal times, our secondary clients (those who have already graduated from the residential facility) help out in the community as part of their treatment. With this at a standstill, our resettlement team organised some internal volunteering activities that played on the strengths of individual clients - painting the building, gardening, helping out with food orders, helping to coordinate wellness sessions, for example - so they were still able benefit from that element of their treatment. 

Unfortunately, we had to halt new admissions from March through to April, because we just didn’t have the policies in place to protect the clients who were already living with us. However, while our doors were closed, we worked closely with Forward’s Health and Safety Team to devise a new policy around self-isolating and socially-distanced client admissions.

We set up a quarantine area on our second floor landing so that when new clients came in they could isolate for two weeks, and retrained our staff, who were equipped with full PPE, so they could attend to them. With this strategy in place, we were able to start admitting new clients again from May. It was such a powerful moment when we had our first two new clients walk down the stairs after their isolation period; everyone was waiting for them, cheering, clapping, hugging them, and embracing them into the community. Over the last few months, we’ve been able to take six more new clients - which is amazing, particularly given the circumstances.

We’ve used the opportunity to really refine our assessment criteria, too. When someone drops out of treatment, it has such a devastating ripple effect on the rest of our live-in clients. That’s why it’s critical to find candidates who are well-suited to and ready for the programme. Because we’ve had the time to comb through all of our policies, we’re now getting the right people into the facility, and since the beginning of the lockdown, we’ve had zero drop outs. That means our retention rate and occupancy is the highest it’s ever been and for the first time ever, we’ve even got a waiting list! We’ve had six people graduate in the period between May and July - which is phenomenal for us. Plus we’ve been able to get a tight aftercare package in place to make sure they’ve got a suitable house and everything in place for when they go home.

We've had a crazy time these past few months, and of course it's been an extremely difficult one for many people, but in all honesty, the lockdown has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to The Bridges. While it was a struggle at first, both our clients and staff listened and got on board with the changes admirably, and as a result the experience has only served to bring us closer together.

We’ll take a lot away from this time: the closeness we’ve had, the client-led fitness and therapy sessions, the digital connectivity, the volunteering in the house. It has really shown us that we can do things differently, when we put our minds to it. 

Things are slowly but surely returning back to normal: home visits, with thorough risk assessments and appropriate isolation periods, can go ahead again, mutual aid meetings are starting to come back, our volunteers are beginning to return - which means we can take clients shopping in town again - but I truly believe this whole experience has left us better off than before. I, for one, am looking forward to an even brighter future for The Bridges.

- Jessica Bailey, Treatment Manager, The Bridges

On Saturday 12th September, 'Team Bridges' will be running, cycling and swimming the 63-mile Humber Tri Challenge, to raise money for The Bridges. Find out more and support the team here.